A Taste of Sicily

Noto was like many Sicilian towns in that it occupied the side and crest of a hill. Steep steps lead between the cobbles from one tier to another and tiny lanes wove in a labyrinth of ascending spirals and semi-circles.
I congratulated myself on finding a gentle winding gradient through alleys of ever decreasing width until my way was barred by a small boy. He was wielding a long baton and had a lot to say. Perhaps he required a password. His response was to raise the stick and bash me about the helmet and shoulders. It was steep and being heavily laden, I could not move fast enough. From here on everything happened in a blur. Sped up slow motion, where nothing moves and yet everything spins. He saw his advantage, trotted around to the front and jammed his stick into my front wheel. Even with my slow progress the force of my uphill flight spun the stick out, reminding of childhood spin-drier warnings. It smacked him hard on the wrist and I bawled a long string of the most abusive quasi-Italian musical expletives I could muster.. if I had been hurtling down hill at speed I would have broken my neck. To complete the assault, a two year old thug sitting at shoulder height on steps that led up between the houses lobbed broken bricks down at me.
Susan later told me that if I had knocked on a door to advise the parents of their offspring’s lack of manners, I would more than likely have received a black eye. A kinked mudguard stay and a spoke out of true was the only damage sustained. In fact, it was the only mishap to befall either Sir. Galahad or myself during the whole 12 months I was away and the only time I got to wield my spoke wrench. An engineering triumph, as the mysteries of bringing a wheel back to true required ‘the knowledge’….after which, of course, my nipples squeaked. (cycling terminology) A mild annoyance that reminded me of a very lucky escape.

It was time for a change of scenery. My friend Ruth was coming to join me for a few days and to replenish supplies of toothpaste, medication and, vitally, Devon Farm Chilli chocolate. I have had a long love affair with my toothpaste and, as a little euthymol goes a long way, this was only the third tube in 7 months. I especially enjoy the metal tube and woe betide anybody who squeezes it from the middle or causes unsightly dents. I may have imitated my father on this; ditto, his fastidiousness over sticky hands and oranges, with which he was utterly incapable.

I was to meet Ruth at Palermo, in the diagonal opposite corner of Sicily to Noto. However, two days before my departure, Franco announced that these plans would coincide with an all too familiar ‘Sciopero’.
A transport strike in Italy is such a common occurrence that there is a website dedicated to give those who want to travel on public transport advance information. There was to be a major strike involving buses, taxis, and fuel. It would cover precisely the period when Ruth and I had planned to tour around the west of Sicily in a hired car.
It looked a little uncertain to travel by bus, so I opted for the train. This journey along two sides of a triangle . … the east and then the north coast….. took 7 hours compared to the inland, diagonal 3 hour bus route, but was worth it to see the slow passage of landscape in all its contrasting rugged beauty and industrial concrete.
One of Susan’s language students had recommended a B & B in the centre of Palermo …. Piccolo Sicilia and Raffaela who came out to meet me with smiling baby Cesare.
On the pavement beside the door to her apartment, I bought 6 oranges from the stall holder and consumed half of them as soon as I got to my room. I could happily have kept him in business.

In the queue for the airport bus the next morning, there was a commotion. A man was contorting himself at great speed and high volume while clutching a mobile phone. With windmill arms, alternately bent double and then arching in a backwards spasm he roared and whined like a grotesque Katherine wheel. Each forward convulsion was punctuated with an emphatic knee-wards fling of his forearm, at the end of which, his thumb and finger tips, white with compression, were skewed tightly into an upturned claw. Every now and then he would hold his mobile at arm’s length as if to better abuse it and then he would throw his head back and clutch it two-handed as pop-star massages his microphone.. This performance lasted fully 20 minutes while an unmoved audience waited for the bus to arrive. He continued without pause until we were half way to the airport.
With a final finger-jab to the phone he turned to his female neighbour and bawled a blow by blow account of his “virilita insultato”. Poor girl. She shrank into the window curtains. Each time she turned to look out he joggled her elbow.

I was feeling so nauseated from the hubub and with having to sit too far back that I started to exercise witchcraft. For my sake and hers, I silently summoned him to vacate his front seat. It has never worked. This time though, it did. He started to pace up and down the bus in an attempt to widen his field of support upon which I darted forwards and settled into the space. When I pointed at my paper bag and mimed being sick, he studiously kept his distance. The girl and I exchanged an eyebrow.

At last in the airport I managed to recover and then through the sliding
doors staggered Ruth and ruck sack. Another adventure in bud.

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Bombello … trying word-things out on Sicily


Now a slow pendulum breathes an intuitive pulse into the days. Sun up; gathering wood  generates warmth to ward off the early chill. Acquired appetite for breakfast directs me to the outdoor kitchen. Eggs, tomatoes, wild asparagus and coffee. Ecstasy as my blood sugars rise. Light in metallic notes from spoons, and all the reflective surfaces…. little glints that fuse into a chorus to marry with the birdsong and the growing heat that pulls fresh aromas from damp soil.

Sequestered between the roots of an ancient olive tree I have called a truce on my own action and watch ants meet and greet from their lines. The hours pass. Oranges summon me to satisfy thirst. My limbs transfer to the trees to gather armful after armful as though another distant part of me initiated movement. Then from a new roof top vista I am absorbed into the landscape. Into the shapes of trees across the valley. Their individuality and their tidy rows. Colour and light. Form and shadow. Sound and silence. I stay until the heat is too much and hunger is saying it is noon. I prepare lunch. It takes all day to live, eat, wash, walk and gather, rest and play.

The shadows are turning and lengthening as the sun departs, setting a golden flame in the branches of the almond trees. Now it is time to use the last of the fading light to collect the morning’s wood harvest and light the wood burner. Candles light the kitchen for supper and my diary entry. The sun passes his lantern to the moon who conceals it behind the hill. In the sky above it, the light intensifies with maddening slowness until a tight curl of silver breaks over the rim. The suspense is broken. I watch her rise until the lower curve of the full moon’s circumference is poised upon crest of the hillside and from there she beams, cool upon my face to roll us into the night. I had been riveted to the spot for nearly 2 hours and am suddenly perished.

Even in Sicily the temperature has dropped but the wood burner has warmed my bedroom. At last I relinquish my outdoor theatre and exchange my rugs for a duvet and hot water bottle. Here in the traditional older buildings there is more air circulating. My bed is warm and dry. A cool draught flutters like a baroque flute, whispering arabesques around my head. I drift in the pre-sleep moments…. partially conscious and out-of-body, seeing myself from the willow ceiling rushes and unable to distinguish where my limbs join…. is my head attached? which way round am I? I must paint this sensory trance-dismemberment tomorrow. I am omni present; expanded into a trillion particles of melody that pirouette through the valley and around my room.
Suddenly my mass has condensed and I thud back into the bed with a shock of solidity. I wake and shrink back to myself and the chill of being enclosed, alone in a room and a huge area of land. I crave the safety of being outside and not penned within four walls. If anyone intrudes now I will not be able to get out. They will know I am here by the candle light in the windows. My heart thumps as I get up. I close all the shutters so that it is as black as a Welsh coal mine. A velvet-dark lullaby. Sleep descends and closes me down for the night.

out-of-body in Bombello

out-of-body in Bombello

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The Piano. A Practice in Expression.

The love-call from my piano intoxicates me. A thousand pound mass of mahogany and steel. A nucleus that anchors my home and coaxes me back from disintegration.
Her voice lives by the skin, muscle and bone of 88 hammers, the tautness of strings and a wafer of sound board that has been singled out from queues of Sitka spruce. A diaphragm that resonates, amplifies and bestows upon me the fragrance of infinity. Yet with the rigour of a virtuoso she rewards me only when I give everything of myself.
Only when I tear open emotion, physicality and intelligence.

She does not suffer fools gladly. On days when I come to her, idle, the disapproval crawls back to me from her underbelly.

What if she were to loosen my shackles?


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Would you like to help me win a cycling travel voucher?

Hi everyone. If you are a facebook user, you could help me to win a big skedaddle prize with my China cartoons. . . . here are some reminders!
Please go to their facebook page, ( search for “Saddle Skedaddle ” ) scroll through until you see ‘competition entries’ and then look for my cartoons. Liking and sharing them will help to boost my numbers!
I know I know, it is rather a game, but for £1000 worth of travel, I am up for playing and my entry at least is unusual, wouldn’t you say?

I would probably have to promise to do more paintings, which would be no hardship! Suggestions for where to go if I am the lucky winner?

Thanking you in advance, Jenny


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The Intimacy of Charcoal.

For the last few weeks I have returned to working in charcoal in pursuit of understanding light.

Somehow, in the process, I also managed to loosen my grip on ‘achieving’ a nice end result….. and hey presto, it all got a bit easier.

It is such a tender way to work, building up a soft grey fog …. alternating stick and cloth, stroking in and sweeping off… fingers, too. Then when there is an even, dense base, bringing light by rubbing out. Truly magical and so forgiving; you can make a mess, dissolve back into the fog and start again.

Form begins to suggest itself and it is more a matter of following it in than making the shapes happen.

The three are still life, strong contrasts ( interior ) and diffuse light.




The last was from the imagination. The second a copy of a photo and the first ( today’s study ) was from the collection of objects on the studio table.
Incidentally, we get served the best coffee in town, often in one of the exquisite bone china cups, now serving as centre piece in the top picture.
Annemarie who guides us through the tough struggles and out into laughter, provides a Friday oasis. It has been a source of renewal, nourishment and inspiration for well over 18 years.

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Husaby Kirk and Opus 110

Husaby Kirk and Opus 110

Compared to the dainty little beach cafe piano in Denmark, the Yamaha upright in the hallowed space of Husaby had something very different to say.

It had the kind of dry, fiery bass to awaken the dead and stir them within their granite tombs.

Hans and Elenor had taken me to one of their favourite hilltops and so to the church where all the Kings of Sweden had been sanctified.

There was a quality of historic, austere silence in the heavy stonework. It met the vibrancy of Beethoven’s music with a neutral impassivity. The unyielding surfaces could not absorb the sound and so the music seemed to hang in the airy cool spaces to cascade over us.
The visitors stopped milling around and either sat or stood, finding themselves becalmed as they listened.
Hans, Elenor, Richard and his friend were also motionless in their close little family group beside the piano.
Time itself became an illusion, and as I played it was as though nothing else existed but separate ribbons of notes loosely, seamlessly interlacing with one another to dissolve again and again.
The stillness seemed to expand not only upwards into the ribbed vaults and bosses above us but beyond into another dimension altogether.
Every note, every phrase, pause, cadence had its own precise sunlit shaft upon which to hover and speak in perfect unhurried acquiescence, suspended moment upon moment before evaporating back into the ether.
Whilst the low mantle of bass notes unfurled and swept about our feet, the treble curled and pressed its arching gesture heavenwards until in an ascending shimmering vortex it spun, glittering above us before drifting away on threads of gossamer.
The closing bars of music finally settled back into the silence and at last even the ancient masonry seemed to exhale in deep, warmed satisfaction.
Turning back towards to their healthy, tanned faces, everybody looked radiant, opened, at peace. Hans’ soft eyes were brimming with tears.
We closed the lid of that passionate, good-hearted Yamaha and emerged from the gloom of the shadows to bathe again in the sun’s warmth.

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BBC radio 3

My favourite radio station. .
It has been my companion and greatest music educator since I was a child . Most of my music collection is a result of listening and thinking “must try that one” …. and how many times has there been just the perfect piece at the perfect moment just as I needed something?
I once pulled the car into a layby because screaming children in the back were threatening to distract me to the point of danger. I put the radio on and there was the most wonderful Rachmaninov. We all just calmed down and carried on.
This morning, Radio 3 has just done me the honour of playing my choice of “music for travel” and letting me waffle with Petroc Trelawny about it for 2 minutes! Beethoven naturally. Opus 109 first movement. Beautiful. What a lovely way to start the day!

Thank you so much to you all at the “beeb” for a lifetime of riches.

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